Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hybrid Rugby – The Matt O’Connor Approach

A good few weeks ago now, I wrote a piece on the Leinster Coach and related issues called Matt Matters - Issues surrounding Leinster Rugby and Matt O’Connor’s part in it? I’m going to re-look at the style of play that Leinster and MOC are currently attempting to play and the effect it is having?

Some of this piece is written following excellent and thought provoking comments by fellow readers of HoR which have allowed me to fashion my own rounded conclusions at this stage of the season and I’m most glad to reproduce aspects of those comments/thoughts within this. Writing this will, I hope cease the frustrations partly, at least for myself! 

I believe (at least in this aging retired prop forwards mind), where Leinster under MOC are attempting to go…..that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with it cos although I was a prop, I’m an attack minded forward that hates a defensive and risk free, open-play adverse type of game ESPECIALLY when you have the quality players who can do the exact opposite. 

Now without wishing to get dragged into a mire of arguments & counter-arguments on aspects that frankly have been done to death, I will add this because the following issues which have been part of our last 12-18 months HAVE, DO and WILL continue to have an effect on Leinster Rugby at least for this season........
  • The huge list of injuries and ongoing matters
  • Loss of key players retired, moved etc
  • Loss of coaching staff
  • New players
  • New coaching staff (some who are in their first season let alone as a new coaching team together)
  • International games which takes away the team cohesion for a transitioning team and physically / mentally drains players (oh yeah, and let’s not forget we were 10 points behind Munster at the 6 Nations phase last year with ALL our stars, yet it was a mix of those left behind plus “A” team / Academy that turned it around!!)
  • New systems and processes adopted by the new coach.
  • MOCs inability to be media-savvy (Someone somewhere needs to help the fella out. Don’t put him in these positions. Look after him. Respect for now he is OUR coach!)

So where do I start? Well what do I think are the overarching aims of MOC from when he took over and beyond?? 

  1. To continue what Joe Schmidt had done BUT to bolster up the defence ensuring that Leinster has it tight when the opposition are putting it up us in all areas! (Season 1)
  2. To develop strength in depth in the Leinster squad, inculcating the “A” team and Academy players as required. (Season 1 / 2)
  3. To develop an attacking dimension based on 3 areas that will allow Defence into Defence/Attack into Attack (Season 2>). The MOC “Quadrant” 

[a] KICKING: A kicking game that ultimately gains territory (Rugby Union)

[b] CENTRE DRIVEN APPROACH: Driving down the centre using players to clear out rather than quickly offload. Build phases and move out wide. (Rugby League) 

[c] WIDTH: The ability to go wide across both sides of the park at will and at speed thereby opening up the park completely and seeking overlap, gaps and exploiting those.  (Rugby Union & Rugby League)

[d] SCRUM / LINEOUTS: I’m not going in depth into this compared with the other 3 areas, because even when we do get a dart straight, we don’t seem to utilise it as a foundation for a rolling maul enough and the scrum is in slight disarray. It is the 4th part of the areas that ultimately make a successful team. Control of both are so key to making or changing a game and it springboards many of your plays. Player availability and a new scrum coach all contribute to that. It will get better but for now it’s a key negative in our play. (Rugby Union)

So what does this mean………………….Where are we at? 

Well I believe that MOC and Leinster have achieved most of items 1 & 2 above in the main however have been very unfortunate with player availability. The Defensive frailties we have shown are I believe as a result of the mindset and plays in Item 3 which is where we get to the rub……..

KICKING…………..I don’t like kicking especially box-kicks. I believe kicking is completely wasted unless you have an attack-minded, open playing set of players who are “on the hoof” at the moment the scrum half or whoever is taking the kick to ensure they get there first! Likewise it’s the same if we kick out to touch. Currently we are NOT utilising the kicking aspect as part of the MOC “Quadrant” of options as we should be. A large number of kicks are overshot and are an unnecessary part of our play.

CENTRE DRIVEN APPROACH:  A recent comment on HoR regarding the victory against Saints in the HC last year where we used an effective kicking tactic to gain territory and then exploited the wide channels at pace and to great effect made me review again what we had then against now. Whilst I was grateful of the reminder, it didn’t change my opinion, last year was for me a mix of the remnants of the Saint Joe era with most of the players still with that winning, attacking, believing mindset PLUS some elements brought in by MOC………..Oh and the fact that both the central channel and the forwards play in all areas was so effectively controlled in that first game meant Saints in real terms capitulated. 

I can imagine the Saints approach to the return game was to analyse, analyse, analyse what and how Leinster achieved what they did then to block ANY opportunity to do the same. Leinster turned up to play the same game and POW, Saints were reading us like an open book. Just like this season on many occasions, we do the MOC plays but when they are not working we fall apart. Teams know what’s coming, what to expect and the results are inevitable. That’s fact! That’s reality!

Most of what I see appears to be low risk, low reward, and defensively minded plays hoping to edge ourselves up the field in a stop / start concertina effect motion. The supporting players are supposed to clean out and await the scrum half or someone to act in that role to feed the ball out rather than offload immediately or in the tackle?? I have noticed on quite a few occasions this year that there seems an age before someone gets there. That allows the opposition to take an opportunity to come through the gate and steal. Last week we had 17 turnovers against us. Whatever the reasons, it speaks volumes.

That playing through the centre, stop / start concertina effect, low risk, open-play adverse, defensive style of rugby is actually to my mind what we would call Rugby League. 

WIDTH: I say open-play adverse because although I genuinely believe the width game is one of MOCs binding principles, the Centre Driven Approach actually stifles the fast attacking, Tap n Go style, on the spot initiative taking rugby required to achieve the 3rd element, getting it out wide quickly creating space, gaps, potential overlaps. What’s happening with Leinster is we do the centre piece, slow, stifled as it is, get it out eventually, the opposition has already numbers back so we change tack, come back inside and try moving it across. It stops in contact (if we haven’t telegraphed an “Intercept” pass to them!) then we start the process again. A lot of time, it’s like a scene from the trenches in WW1, back n forth but no REAL ground gained? It gets stifled, we lose a penalty or if we are lucky gain one and then proceed to struggle with our scrum.

We clearly have that skillset in Kearney, Kirchner, Fitzy, Mad-dog, Reddan (after last week lol), even Cronin (though I will harp on once more about getting basics like darts & hooking correct before metres are made?) I cannot unfortunately include Mr Fanning. I know he has scored a few tries this year by being in the right place at the right time and some might opine “Jaysus big fella, what more do you want??”……..What I want is overall playing ability, tackling, initiative and commitment and I don’t get it from him….sorry Darragh!

You have to add the fact that there is some expectation management of fans and probably for the players, staff etc as well. For some fans, MOC would never EVER regardless of what he achieved be accepted because he was unfortunate enough to follow the near deity that is Joe Schmidt? Likewise, MOC doesn’t do the media well, it’s just not his cup of tea. Then put someone in who does. It worked for Sir Alex Ferguson who hardly ever did an interview. Poor Matt was dragged up for literally 20 seconds the other night and you could just see in his language that it was a complete waste of time and I agree. All bought about by the requirements of TV!! You also need a coaching mentality that rubs off on the players. That’s what great coaches do. The Joe Schmidt’s of this world, The Alex Fergusons, The Clive Woodward’s…………MOC is a good coach currently, a thinking coach but not I fear one in the same league as Saint Joe, Woodward et al. Will he develop into one? Time will tell.  

So what does this leave us with? Well an understanding of what MOC and Leinster are TRYING to play? Once excellent comment I saw recently regarding our play was, 
Low risk, low reward seems to be the order of the day. Don't play rugby in the first 60m, control territory before all else, pass to inside shoulders to keep the opposition away from the ball, do not offload in the tackle, do not come onto the ball at pace to ensure passes stick etc” - John Molloy
That’s a great assessment of where we are and whilst I understand what MOC is trying to do, for me personally, it bridges us somewhere between Union & League………….a HYBRID game?? Perhaps some may say that MOCs background in both codes will naturally give him that bent, likewise why he has brought in Ben Te’o and persists with Jimmy G (though I personally like Goppers and just feel he’s lost his Mojo a bit which IS a shame). Perhaps IF and when it works you’ll get the best of both. Currently it doesn’t though and even when it does, it’s inconsistent. 

The legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly once said, “For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side." That’s what Leinster fans expect and as I have said we still have top class players as individuals but they’re not currently gelled as a team.

Only occasionally do we see some real flashes of brilliance and that’s because we have a plethora of international / world class players who have it in their DNA to produce it……….CLEARLY THEY HAVE but it’s not consistent and almost I’d say an autonomous reaction to a given situation and their DNA says, hey let’s go!! You can feel the pain and frustration within the players at times. They know what they are capable of but it’s just not together. Collectively they are not firing as one and have lost their mojo. Is that just symptomatic of the whole issue currently OR purely down to poor coaching?

Likewise there IS a way that Leinster play and the fans know and expect that. It’s the same as Man Utd did or as Barcelona do or as Chelsea do or as Toulon do. The top clubs in any sport play a certain way, they keep that success by assimilating players into the “System” and have a number of adaptable ways to keep that “System” a success. One thing for certain is that the current MOC / Leinster system is far too defensive in its conduct from my perspective and perhaps together with the points raised in Serials 1 – 8 above ALL are having a compounding effect. The bottom line fans want to know is, when and will it come to fruition? 

I suspect even for those who are either for giving Matt O’Connor more time or are sitting on the fence, they are asking themselves why can’t we adapt plays during the game instead of continuing with those that either aren’t working OR worse, have been analysed by the opposition and who are playing us at our own game.

I still like MOC and get what he is trying to achieve but those ideas MUST be part of a flexible approach that for whatever reason if they're not working in a game we can adapt the ones the team know work or have worked. I'd rather we tried different types of plays in a game and lost than continue with ones that don't always succeed. 

A good leader will persevere with a plan until it works….....a great one adapts to shifting changes forced on them.


@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019